One very helpful strategy for improving heart health involves educating yourself about food sources, so that over time, you are able to quickly determine which foods contain healthy fats and which ones contain unhealthy fats. This way you can limit your intake of foods associated with weight gain, increased levels of bad cholesterol and increased risk of heart disease.

Despite its current reputation, fat is a nutrient and essential for normal function of the body. But it also is a nutrient that is abused in the American diet of processed food, super-sized fast food, frozen food, fried food, hot dogs and hamburgers, and all manner of snacks and desserts. Couple this diet with low levels of physical activity and you have a lifestyle tailor-made for the development of heart disease, diabetes and obesity.

Getting a handle on the different types of major fats may seem a bit challenging at first, but all of them can be divided into three general categories:

Saturated Fats

These are found primarily in animal products such as meat, milk, cheese, butter and cream. Saturated fats have a somewhat sinister — although somewhat undeserved — reputation in the American diet. Saturated fats are the reason that foods are tender, flaky or creamy, as well as solid at room temperature. Like all fats, saturated fats help make you feel satisfied and full. Problem is, many Americans have grown accustomed to ingesting much more saturated fat than is needed for normal, healthy function of the body, and this excess intake has contributed to major increases in the number of people who are overweight and who have diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.

Trans Fatty Acids

Trans fatty acids are created through hydrogenation, a process food manufacturers use to harden unsaturated liquid vegetable oils into saturated- like fats. This helps increase the shelf-life of a product and helps improve texture and consistency.

Oils may be hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated (e.g., shortening or margarine). The list of foods containing partially hydrogenated oils—and therefore trans fat—is slightly longer than the U.S. Constitution, but some of the main culprits include fast foods, particularly French fries, baked goods made with partially hydrogenated vegetable oil or vegetable shortening, doughnuts, most crackers, boxed cookies, stick margarine, certain granola bars, hard taco shells and frosting mixes.

Note: Peanut butter does contain hydrogenated oils, but it contains only very small amounts of trans fat. It also is a good source of protein and it contains mono- or polyunsaturated fats, the good fats (see below).

Unsaturated Fats(the "good" fat)

These consist of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, the latter of which contain heart-friendly omega-3 fatty acids. When eaten in moderation, unsaturated fats are the "good" fats; when used in place of saturated fats, they can help lower cholesterol types known to contribute to heart disease and heart attack risk. Unsaturated fats, unfortunately, pack lots of calories, so they must be enjoyed in moderation. (See the tips below for examples of foods that contain unsaturated fats.)

Need Diet and Lifestyle Guidance?

For more information on preventive cardiology, or to schedule an appointment with a preventive cardiology physician or nutritionist, call the main campus of The Cleveland Clinic at 216.444.9353. To learn about services at the Family Health Centers, see our Family Health Center website.

Reviewed: 12/13